Home Event An ideal coffee factory

An ideal coffee factory


By Barend ter Haar, fellow of Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

Several Dutch traditions were honoured at once in Qatar when on June 21 the Van Nelle Factory in Rotterdam was placed on the World Heritage List.

First of all it illustrates the Dutch contribution to modern architecture, together with the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht that is on the World Heritage List since 2000 and Sanatorium Zonnestraal in Hilversum that is a candidate for this list. Although these three buildings are almost ninety years old, the untrained eye might think they were only built yesterday, proving how much ahead of their time these buildings were.

Secondly the Van Nelle Factory was built with the workers in mind, which was quite a new idea at the time. By providing pleasant working conditions, the Van Nelle Factory became not only “a poem in steel and glass” but also “an ideal factory”.

Finally the building is a monument for the centuries old Dutch tradition of global trade and import and processing of tropical products. During most of the eighteenth century the Dutch East India Company monopolized the coffee trade. At that time coffee was still a very expensive luxury, but eventually prices lowered and coffee became a popular drink in most of Europe.

In 1782 Johannes van Nelle and his wife Hendrica started a shop in coffee, tea and tobacco. Their successors founded coffee plantations in the Dutch East Indies and built factories to roast coffee. The modernist factory built in Rotterdam proved to be the last one of these. It now houses small businesses and special events, but the authenticity of the complex was preserved.

Drinking coffee might nowadays be an international pastime, the way it is practiced in the Netherlands is unique and might sometimes be confusing to foreigners. A short introduction to where and when drinking coffee in the Netherlands might help. First of all: where to get good cup of coffee? One might expect a café or coffee shop to be the place to go. However, although they will probably serve coffee, the specialty of a café is beer and a coffee shop is where one goes for soft drugs. In fact there is no generic name for places that serve good coffee.

Secondly: when to drink coffee? A Dutchman drinks coffee any time of the day, from breakfast until after dinner, but “coffee time” is somewhere between ten and eleven in the morning. This coffee break is considered by Dutchmen to be a fundamental right and disregarding it is a grave mistake. A typical Dutch tradition is to serve one (only one) cookie with coffee.

Then, around noon, when many other Europeans go for a hot lunch, the Dutch have their cold coffee meal (“koffietafel”), consisting mainly of bread, cheese, ham, milk and coffee. The most famous koffietafels are those of Brabant and Limburg. Bon appétit!

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